A Timeline of Blue Alerts, What They Are, and How They Work
For more than ten years, many state and local governments have had the ability to use a “blue alert” system of mass notification in order to warn the public of dangerous offenders on the run and to solicit information that can help apprehend them.
In May 2008, Florida became the first state to implement a Law Enforcement Officer (“LEO”) Alert system. The system was activated whenever an officer was killed or seriously injured in the line of duty; and, if the offender posed a threat to public safety, overhead signage above the state’s highways would warn motorists of the threat, together with a description of the vehicle the offender was travelling in.
Over the next seven years, twenty additional states implemented similar “blue alert” systems; and, in 2015, Congress passed the National Blue Alert Act. The Act instructed the Department of Justice to create a national Blue Alert communication system with the objective of alerting the public to offenders on the run – not only for public safety, but also to help apprehend the offender.
Blue Alerts Integrated into EAS and WEA Systems
In December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced it had integrated blue alerts into the Emergency Alert System (EAS) and Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) system. This integration makes it possible for participating law enforcement agencies to share information across state lines and warn citizens of neighboring states if an offender is headed in their direction.
At the time of the integration, twenty-six states operated compatible blue alert systems. Due to the work of the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) within the Department of Justice, there are now thirty-five states in the system, with legislation under consideration in four more states. The ultimate aim of the COPS Office is to expand the Blue Alert system to all fifty states.
How Blue Alerts Warn the Public of the Risk of Danger
Blue Alert systems have evolved significantly since the early days of overhead signage in Florida. Now, when a qualifying incident happens, alerts are transmitted via multiple channels of communication including radio broadcasts, social media, and SMS alerts. The criteria for qualifying incidents vary from state-to-state, but usually consists of a version of the following:
- When a law enforcement officer is killed or seriously injured.
- When an officer is missing in connection with official duties.
- When there is an imminent and credible threat to kill or seriously injure a law enforcement officer.
- When a law enforcement agency determines the offender poses an imminent threat to the public.
- When a detailed description of the offender and/or their vehicle is available for broadcast.
- When sharing information with the public may avert further harm or help apprehend the offender.
Similar to Amber Alerts for missing children, Silver Alerts for missing senior citizens, and Ashanti Alerts for missing persons aged between the ages of 18 and 65, Blue Alerts can be transmitted within specific geographic areas rather than county-wide or statewide. This feature ensures alerts are received only by people for whom they are relevant to prevent alarming citizens unnecessarily.
An Example of the Blue Alert System in Practice
In August 2019, Otis Walker Jr. shot and killed his girlfriend at their home in Stonecrest, Georgia. Walker then shot and injured responding officer Derek Nunn before making a getaway. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) issued a Blue Alert via social media, and a week after the shooting, the DeKalb County Sheriff’s Office took Walker into custody not far from the scene of the crime.
Discussing the use of the Blue Alert system in this case, GBI’s Deputy Public Affairs Director – Natalie Ammons – said: “Time is of the essence. If you think about if an officer is shot, if someone has hurt an officer that’s a big public safety issue because most likely that person is going to be very dangerous and will likely hurt someone in the public.”
With regards to using social media as a channel of communication to alert the public and solicit information, Ammons acknowledged that Walker’s arrest came as the result of a tip and added: “The public, they want to help. They want to keep their families safe and they want to help if an officer has been killed or injured. So, it’s very important to get the information out quickly so it can be shared.”
Find Out More about EAS/WEA-Compatible Alerting Systems
If you are responsible for public safety in your jurisdiction, and you would like to know more about EAS/WEA-compatible alerting systems – not only for Blue Alerts, but for any type of emergency mass notification – do not hesitate to get in touch. Our team of safety experts will be happy to demonstrate the effectiveness of our mass notification systems, explain how they can be integrated with existing notification systems (i.e., overhead digital signage) and answer any questions you have.